Right from the very start of the season – just after I’d booked a holiday that would potentially clash with the play-off final date – there was a strong sense of inevitability that the Mariners would reach that play-off final. Once they did, I was resigned to the fact that I would only be able to listen to the match from my hotel room in Seattle (which offered the view seen in the pic above).
So there I was, tucked up in bed, eight hours behind the UK, earphones connected to my iPhone, my iPhone connected to the hotel’s wifi, the sun trying to creep between the curtains. It was 5.55am. I’d just tuned into Radio Humberside and the fans were about to belt out the national anthem.
We had a long day ahead of us. We had to get a taxi to the airport at 10am, and then we had a nine-hour flight from Seattle to London Heathrow (followed by shorter flights to Dublin and then Leeds Bradford). A victory would certainly ease the pain of such a torturous journey.
I’d actually gone to bed just as Town fans were waking up and making their way down to Wembley. Although I’d had a long day (in which I was trying desperately to regain my balance after being on a cruise ship for a week) I found it difficult to sleep – mainly because I made the mistake of checking Twitter before I settled down for the night, and all I saw was an endless list of excitable tweets.
I’d be exaggerating if I claimed I got a wink of sleep.
John Tondeur asked Alan Buckley what a manager should say to his players before they went out onto the pitch. “All you can ask of them,” he said, “is that they leave that field with no regrets. I only ever wanted them to give me their best, and if they did, I wouldn’t have any complaints.” His comments were sensible and measured – in contrast to my mood.
Two minutes in and Tondeur interrupts Buckley without apology. “Here comes Arnold, he’s still going… this might be a chance for John-Lewis – he’s going to score here. He’s going to score… he has!”
Seattle had yet to wake up, but in this dark hotel room I was wide awake and celebrating on my bed. It was more of a stunned celebration than anything else. I hesitated for just a second thinking Tondeur may have got it wrong, but he hadn’t.
I thought about that video of Darrell Clarke sparking chants of ‘We are going up!’ in a Bristol pub, and I smirked. What an idiot.
It sounded like Town did well in the first 20 minutes and could’ve been 2-0 up. “John, I’m telling you – this Bristol defence is not that great,” asserted Buckley. “When we get them facing their own goal, they’re panicking. We need to do it more. This keeper doesn’t look settled.”
Well, ‘this keeper’ was lucky to stay on the pitch moments later, although both Tondeur and Buckley broadly agreed that the yellow card was just about right (in stark contrast to the reaction I saw from the majority of Town fans on social media).
The equaliser wasn’t such a surprise when it came. “It was thrashed into the net from close range,” explained Tondeur. “That’s what happens when you don’t clear your lines.”
Just a few minutes later and Shaun Pearson made an uncharacteristic mistake. There was a big roar and you couldn’t make out what was going on. “Now what’s McKeown done? It’ll be a penalty – and he’ll be sent off too! And Town don’t have a keeper on the bench.”
My heart sank. Everything had gone wrong so quickly. “But what’s the referee given here? A yellow card for diving!”
The half time discussion centred around the two controversial decisions. Mike White was on the touchline, providing some commentary on how the Town bench had been reacting to the unfolding action.
The rest of the game made for difficult listening. Rovers appeared to be in control, and then Town had their spells. Gregor Robertson was struggling, then he stopped. Toto pulled up with cramp ‘too early in the game’, according to Buckley – although he lasted the rest of the match and did well.
Palmer wasn’t getting any change. It sounded like he and John-Lewis weren’t as fluent as they were in the second leg against Eastleigh and his substitution for Jon-Paul Pittman wasn’t entirely unexpected. Clay soon replaced Brown, who had begun to tire.
Pittman had two good chances in extra time, but if I’m being honest (and it’s easy to say this now) but it felt like the game was heading to penalties as early as the hour mark. Players sounded too nervous to be ambitious; they erred on the side of caution. Whenever Rovers had the ball I was happy to see it through to spot kicks; when we had the ball I harboured hopes that we’d do something special with it. But that special moment never happened.
As time ticked towards 120 minutes I was hoping that we’d keep possession and deny Rovers the chance to bring on Steve Mildenhall, just to scupper their evil plan. “Do you know what he’s got,” asked Buckley. “Presence. Look at the size of him.”
Ex-keeper comes back to haunt Town? The future was already written, and I began to fear the worst. But then we were given the chance to take the penalties in front of our fans, which was different to the FA Trophy final, and I felt a brief twinge of optimism.
When Disley’s spot kick hit the net to make it 1-1 I punched the bed. The first strike is always crucial. Sadly Rovers kept tucking theirs away, despite McKeown’s efforts. For some reason I lost confidence as soon as Tondeur explained during Pittman’s run-up that he’d be taking it left-footed. I’m not sure why.
“He’s missed! Oh! It’s gone way over the bar; it’s a poor penalty from Pittman.”
Rovers scored to make it 4-2. Clay showed a cool head to make it 4-3, but that was as much as we could affect things.
“If Mansell scores this, Rovers are up. And he does.”
It was all over so quickly. I hadn’t yet washed or dressed, but I was completely exhausted. It was not the ideal preparation for a long, long journey home. I felt for the fans who were there, then I felt for the players. I genuinely felt sorry for all involved.
It was probably the most difficult game of football I have ever listened to on the radio – and the setting was a bit weird too. Sadly it’s not a day I’m going to forget easily.